Roku beats Apple to the TV market

If its Apple TV is ever to be more than a 'hobby,' Apple better get busy

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Apple would likely keep much closer tabs on the apps or channels available to users and to the experience that they provide. It's unlikely it would provide a full SDK for the Apple TV and allow anyone and everyone to create apps for the platform.

The other competitors

Roku and Apple may dominate this market at the moment, but they are far from the only players. Google is currently on its third attempt to penetrate the market with its $35 Chromecast. Although the initial Chromecast feature set was limited, the platform has grown in recent months to include a range of apps and content providers. The biggest appeal of Chromecast is, of course, its price tag, which is significantly lower the Apple TV's $99 cost and notably lower than Roku's entry-level Roku 1, which retails for $59.99. Google's two previous efforts included the Google TV platform, which was built into some early smart TV models as well as dedicated set-top boxes and some Blu-ray players; and the Nexus Q streaming device that never made it to market.

Samsung has developed its own smart TV ecosystem that includes an iTunes-style store and integration between the company's other devices, including smartphones and tablets. LG is also announcing a new smart TV platform based on webOS, which the company purchased from HP. Many Blu-ray players, some DVRs like those from TiVo, and game consoles like Microsoft's Xbox and Sony's PS3 offer support for streaming content from a handful of services. Lesser known set-top boxes like those from Western Digital also offer streaming of local and Internet content.

Out of the living room, into the classroom or conference room

One area that Apple is seeing some success compared to rivals is outside the consumer market altogether. AirPlay is a killer feature of the Apple TV for home users, but it is also a killer feature for schools and businesses. Although Apple didn't initially promote AirPlay in such environments, the company has gotten on board with making the Apple TV education and enterprise friendly.

Because the second and third generation Apple TVs are iOS devices with a unique interface, they can be managed like iPhones and iPads. Apple began introducing management capabilities with Apple Configurator and iOS 6, but has ratcheted up them up significantly with iOS 7. Apple TVs can now be managed over-the-air using the iOS MDM framework, meaning that if a company or school has implemented MDM for iOS devices, basic network configuration and passcode requirements for Apple TVs can be managed just as easily. iOS 7 also allows IT departments to create whitelists of Apple TV devices that can be provided to user iPhones and iPads based on the classrooms (or conference room, theater space or office) where access is needed. Along with the white list of devices, secure passcodes for approved Apple TVs can be sent to a user's device without the user having to enter or even know those passcodes.

In some respects, this is a market where having a separate device can be an advantage over a TV with built-in smart capabilities. The Apple TV's size and relative ease of setup also makes it a good portable presentation system for business users on the road. The device easily connects to a TV or projector with an HDMI port (and through the use of an adapter with other devices as well. Likewise, it can be connected to a local Wi-Fi network, via ethernet, or even to a portable hotspot or a network created from the user's MacBook or PC notebook.

AirPlay's maturity is also a powerful advantage in these markets. Not only does AirPlay allow projection or casting of content to an Apple TV, it also allows for full screen mirroring for both iOS devices and Macs. For Macs running OS X Mavericks, an Apple TV-equipped TV can serve as an additional screen without mirroring. That delivers immense additional screen real estate at a moment's notice.

Ultimately, it's too early to tell how the smart or connected TV market will evolve. Roku may stand a better chance than many of its competitors or it may suffer a fate similar to Google TV. Apple's plans are, as always, something of a mystery. One thing that does seem clear, however, is that the pressure is mounting for Apple to develop the Apple TV into something more than just a hobby.

Ryan Faas is a freelance writer and technology consultant specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. He has been a Computerworld columnist since 2003 and is a frequent contributor to CITEworld.com. Faas is also the author of iPhone for Work (Apress, 2009). You can find out more about him at RyanFaas.com and follow him on Twitter (@ryanfaas).

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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